Richard Ellmann’s biography has no subtitle and needs none. Oscar Wilde presents—without limitation or special advocacy—the whole of the artist. Exhaustively researched, the book nevertheless conceals Ellmann’s prodigious scholarship; he offers the oft-told tale of Wilde’s life with freshness and even a measure of surprise. Ellmann views his subject as a figure out of tragedy rather than sophisticated farce. He underplays Wilde’s antic wit, while amply demonstrating it, to reach the profound intelligence beneath the glittering exterior. Earlier biographies have treated Wilde with affection, others with detachment and admiration, and at least one recent study with scholarly tact. Compared to Ellmann’s work, however, these treatments appear partial or even partisan investigations. Published a year after Ellmann’s death, this biography has the advantage of rigorous scholarship, subtle intellect, and artistry. Ellmann’s final production, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, is vastly entertaining, powerfully affecting.
From his book the reader discovers at least two stunning secrets that force him to reinterpret Wilde’s life. Wilde most likely died of complications from syphilis, which he had picked up from a prostitute while he was at the University of Oxford. Although Ellmann cannot prove the truth of this absolutely, his evidence (much of it circumstantial but including a medical diagnosis made shortly before Wilde’s death) is substantial and reasonably convincing. Also, Ellmann disputes the widely accepted notion concerning Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism. He assembles evidence to show that Wilde had been brought “to the point of decision” but that he rejected, as he had always done, taking the final step; moreover, his mental powers had diminished so much by the time of his final collapse that he could not communicate intelligently any idea or intention.
More significant than a revelation of these secrets is Ellmann’s reassessment of three clichés of Wilde criticism: that the poet was a plagiarist of others’ ideas; that in personal life he lacked moral substance; and that in matters of conviction he was often merely frivolous. The first of these misconceptions (partly established by Wilde’s own repeated insistence that all great writers borrow ideas but that poor writers “invent”) Ellmann exposes by demonstrating the pains that the poet took with his productions. Never a mere “borrower,” Wilde was a conscious artist to whom literature mattered. In recounting Wilde’s feud with James McNeill Whistler, Ellmann shows the meanness of the painter’s spirit, the generosity (until Whistler became insufferable) of the poet’s. For many years, Wilde accepted as an affectionate joke Whistler’s spiteful comments upon his presumed plagiarism. Whistler, however, was never an affectionate friend. Early in their relationship, he masked his malice; later he became an obsessive enemy, even to the point of slandering Wilde among their shared French acquaintances. The best refutation to the argument that Wilde plagiarized much of his material is Ellmann’s patient collection of detail on the poet’s work habits. Posing as a languid aesthete, Wilde during his productive career was actually a disciplined artist, deeply concerned about the impact of his work upon a complacent late-Victorian public. That public wished to be amused, so he was amusing. A social butterfly, a publicity seeker, an effeminate dandy, Wilde was all these; yet he was also serious about his social task. His objective, no less than that of his moralistic contemporaries in letters—Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and others—was to educate the public as well as to entertain.
Indeed, Ellmann makes it clear that Wilde considered himself a moralist. His morals, to be sure, were unconventional. Even as a quintessential aesthetic poseur early in his career, he established for himself the task of developing in his audience a sensibility that approved beauty as well as commerce, art as well as piety. Later, he came to equate art with a higher morality. To shatter Victorian complacency, he became the great critic of aestheticism: Art was not merely decorative; it was subversive.
Ellmann traces Wilde’s intellectual development from dandified aesthete to secret decadent, from talker to doer, from entertainer to philosopher. Wilde’s morals—like those of William Blake, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence—were centered upon doctrines of contraries. He used paradoxes to startle, epigrams to concretize argument into quotable units, and parables to provide countermyths in defiance of Victorian smugness. By turning morals upside down, he insisted that his public see the world (as he did) through contradictions and ironies. Although his public accepted Wilde as amusing, even brilliant, as a wit and entertainer, they neglected to view him in his...
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